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Beating around the Bush

Pete Smith on the prospects for a successful Kerry challenge to the incumbent President.

George W Bush was elected in November 2000 in very dubious circumstances. Not only was he elected president on a minority of the popular vote, but in Florida, where his brother Jeb just happened to be governor, there was a disputed election which hung on the hanging chads, which were about the voting machines not working properly. The Supreme Court, made up of a majority of Republican nominees, stepped in to effectively hand the election to Bush. Some people have, perhaps rightly, regarded this as a judicial coup: the Supreme Court, rather than the American people, choosing the president.

Bush’s problem has been that in office he has been very far from effective. He was obsessed by Iraq from almost the first day that he entered office, if not before, partly because Iraq was in some senses his father’s unfinished business. There is now a growing realisation that this preoccupation blinded him and his administration to the real threat to the United States from al-Qaeda, which became evident on September 11. After 9/11 he in effect went into hiding for three days whilst former President Bill Clinton did what his is best at, which is meeting and greeting, hugging and squeezing and being the people’s president. Bush is not like that: he is awkward with people, perhaps because he does not have the confidence, or let us be blunt, he is not very clever, except in the sense that he has a very good memory, but not much of an ability to theorise or conceptualise.

In his youth Bush had a serious alcohol problem, as well as being a womaniser. He managed to avoid the Vietnam War by getting his father to pull strings to get him enrolled in the Texas Air Force National Guard. I do not think that the Vietcong posed a real threat over the skies of West Texas. He then became a born-again Christian, and at one point had an argument with his father at the White House about who could be saved through Jesus, which resulted in evangelist Billy Graham being called to the White House to resolve the dispute in Bush Junior’s favour.

Bush’s connections with the oil industry are notorious and give us some hints as to the current events in Iraq, as well as his apparently limitless ability to raise money from corporate interests for his campaigns. As well as big oil, Bush has spared no effort to support drug companies and the insurance industry. Special interests are apparently in his interest, if not that of ordinary Americans.

The election in November seems likely to prove a close-run thing, despite the early assumption that an easy victory in Iraq would bring Bush a victory at the ballot box. Things turn out to be not so straight forward. Bush posing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, acting up the style of a war hero, which he clearly is not, announced the end of the war, which of course has not ended, as more and more American troops get returned in stars and stripes draped coffins to such an extent that the Department of Defense has tried to sensor media coverage. Bush is presiding over a second Vietnam, the war he was too much of a coward to fight in.

In contrast, Bush’s Democratic opponent John Kerry did fight in the Vietnam War and when he returned home he campaigned against the war. Kerry is a New Englander in the Jack Kennedy mold, and of course being married to an heiress does not hurt in terms of the ability to raise cash for his campaign. I would expect that the unions will pitch into the Democratic campaign as ever, particularly because not just of the loss of jobs in the United States but also because Bush has openly declared that the export of jobs from America to low wage economies is actually a good thing. Kerry is obviously not a socialist and in his many years in the Senate he has been tainted by contributions to his campaign funds from some special interest groups, but heavens we know what the American political process is like and that fighting campaigns is a very expensive business.

In 2000, Ralph Nader was widely blamed for having as the Green candidate split the left of centre vote and let Bush in. Of course this is always a problem with a first past the post electoral system, particularly as in America when it is combined with the arcane system of the electoral college. Nader would be stupid to run against Kerry this time round when all the opinion polls show the race to be finely balanced. Apparently he does intend to run and this might provide Bush with the second term his father failed to achieve.

The patterns of American politics have changed over the years. The bedrocks of the Democratic vote have been in decline. With the disappearance of traditional industries as blue collar work has disappeared or been exported to Mexico, the power of the unions has been in steep decline, although there is some evidence that this is changing as Latino migrants are swept up more and more in the union movement. The Catholic and Jewish vote is less reliable for the Democrats than used to be, although the Jewish vote can be counted on to a great extent, but Jews are actually a tiny minority of the population and except in certain states like New York not very significant. The Jewish influence in Hollywood is much more significant, but not so much as voters, but as significant contributors to campaign funds.

With black voters it is not their loyalty to the party which is a problem - only a tiny minority every vote Republican - but the registration and turnout are low. If Kerry was sensible, which he may not be, he would turn to leading African Americans, such as Jesse Jackson, to try to boost registration and turnout, since in some states, such as North Carolina and Florida, this could be the key to the result. Jackson has already pledged to get the vote out and is clearly determined to see that Bush is not re-elected. But as with Dukakis in 1988 there is a danger that a white presidential candidate from the North East may be unwilling to use Jackson in too prominent a role for fear of alienating white voters, particularly in the ever important South, where increasingly elections are won or lost.

The outcome of the presidential election is very uncertain, perhaps much more so than it was a few months ago. Bush is not on automatic pilot for a second term and when it comes down to presidential debates in the wake of the national conventions Kerry can clearly beat Bush, not just in rhetoric and argument, but also in tests of personal character. Those of us who want a calmer and more peaceful world must surely hope that Kerry does it.